NOTE: The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and not representative of the views of WiiUAndMii as a whole.
Back in February of this year, Marvelous AQL’s side-scrolling action game Senran Kagura Burst was released in Europe, three months after its digital-only debut in the United States. The game had caught my attention long ago, mainly due to its aesthetic and the resulting anime adaptation by Artland that aired at the beginning of last year (sometimes it can be useful having fingers in multiple pies). When XSEED Games originally announced its eShop-only release for North America, I was actually quite stunned, as the rational side of my brain had questioned whether it would be localised.
XSEED Games would later reveal that the sales of the game were strong, but the game didn’t really have any noticeable impact on the wider industry when it launched last November. When the girls of Hanzō Academy crossed the pond though, it caused a bit of a tidal wave. A blogger for the Official Nintendo Magazine’s website published a feature that not only decried Senran Kagura Burst due to its emphasis on the female casts’ rather sizeable busts and the garment-shedding gimmick, but even went on to claim that such games are damaging to the video game industry at large and called for a boycott of the game. Admittedly, at the time I knew very little about the title, but I still considered the publication of such an article to be dangerous in regards to how it might affect Nintendo’s relationship with third parties. Even though we are constantly reminded that the Official Nintendo Magazine is owned and run by Future Publishing and not Nintendo UK, the fact that it carries the words “Official” and “Nintendo” in its name would carry a heck of a lot weight.
It was actually only a few days before the Official Nintendo Magazine article went live that I approached pQube about the possibility of obtaining a review copy of the game and thankfully, they were generous and obliged me. Despite being keenly interested in the game already and having researched it to a degree, when the original controversy broke out I made sure to keep my lips sealed, because I didn’t want to risk talking about something I knew very little about and making an ass of myself (*whistles innocently*). When I finally completed my play-through and review of the game, I did contact the editorial team of Official Nintendo Magazine with an offer to write a piece defending the game, to help show some neutrality and erase some of the criticism ONM was receiving at that time. Despite me having contributed pieces before, after an initial “We might have had enough of Senran Kagura, but I’ll ask Joe”, I never received a response, even after chasing it up (I think Joe was the online editor at the time? I could be wrong though). I had initially intended to publish what I was planning to write here, but by that time the debate had quieted down though, so I decided to let sleeping dogs lie. I did have fun using my mystical “experience of playing the game” to rip arguments to shreds in their forum though.
So why am I writing this article now, you ask? Because two months from now, Marvelous AQL will be releasing Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson in Japan and the magazine ran a brief “preview” of the game. I say “preview” in inverted commas because it didn’t really talk about the game at all; in fact, it was more of a half-assed hyperbolic rant from someone who clearly didn’t even spend five minutes to watch a gameplay video on YouTube, never mind doing any intensive research on the game.
To be honest, it took me a few days to see the preview, because partly due to the Senran Kagura controversy as well as what I believe to be the declining quality of the publication as a whole and the increasing influence of online media in the industry as opposed to print, my subscription to the magazine was cancelled a few months ago. Fellow WiiUAndMii writer Will did tell me about the a preview, but as with the original debate, I wanted to see what the fuss was about before I stepped in and honestly, I completely agree with the comments made by XSEED Games’ Hatsuu.
The more I’ve delved into the Senran Kagura franchise, the more I’ve realised that if anything, the series is anything but damaging to the industry and its producer, Kenichirō Takaki is an industry figure who I have really come to respect. Not only is his first response to Official Nintendo Magazine’s latest faux pas pointing out that they got the title of the game wrong (that’s some first class sass there and I like it!) but he’s also completely open and honest about who he is. Yes, it could be argued that he’s a bit of a pervert who posts pictures of figures he’s purchased of Nana and Momo from To Love Ru, but he’s so bold and open about who he is and what he’s interested in, that it’s actually rather admirable (even if his main interest is boobs).
Yes, I recognised Momo and Nana. Don’t shoot me.
One thing he cannot be called though, is a bad game designer. One thing I have come to respect the most about Mr. Takaki and the rest of the Senran Kagura team is that unlike a lot of video game developers in the industry right now, they haven’t found themselves stuck in a stagnant rut repackaging the same ideas under a new name every year. Each new addition to the series has brought with it an influx of new ideas and opportunities for its fans. My family’s motto is “innovate, not imitate” and Senran Kagura‘s team does just that. The team isn’t even afraid to move to completely different consoles to explore new ideas; while the series started out on the Nintendo 3DS, the PlayStation Vita allowed Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus to incorporate a more 3D space and quirky online modes, while Senran Kagura: Bon Appétit (also on the Vita) throws the cast into a unique idea that mixes the rhythm genre with naughty cooking. They clearly aren’t out of ideas either, as Takaki has expressed interest in mixing the franchise with pinball, dodgeball, water gun shooters and even Oculus Rift.
Instead of wasting what little print space the game was allocated with what honestly reads like something the author grumbled to themselves when the editor told them they had to write about a game they didn’t like, Official Nintendo Magazine should have focused on the wealth of new and updated features that really set Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson apart from Senran Kagura: Burst (which was already a solid side-scrolling action game). To briefly sum up, they are: gameplay that is entirely in 3D and takes advantage of a brand new camera perspective, pair battles, co-operative multiplayer, improved character customisation, augmented Reality features and even, the addition of a male playable character.
In regards to the comments about how the game shouldn’t exist: as a result of a recent 50% discount on the Japanese Nintendo eShop, sales of Senran Kagura Burst have jumped to #2 on the 3DS eShop chart almost two years after its original release. In fact, despite the game being absent from every Nintendo Direct segment and receiving very little advertising, it managed to enter the Top 40 sales chart on week of release in the United Kingdom – a feat that not even my beloved Bravely Default could accomplish with prominent Nintendo Direct time and a push on Nintendo’s social media channels. So yes, a sequel exists because people buying the game back at release and through to the present day clearly shows that is demand for Senran Kagura. So why not give that audience what they deserve – an actual, objective preview of an upcoming title?
I get it Official Nintendo Magazine, your staff don’t like Senran Kagura and that’s absolutely fine. Although I personally disagree with it, I do respect Matthew Castle’s review of the game because it was an informed decision made as a result of playing the game (and what do you know? He talks about the gameplay and even notes that the subject everyone is complaining about is rarely exploited). The magazine’s later preview of the sequel though, doesn’t even try – the only reference to it being a game is made sarcastically, as if they have to mention it. Well guess what? You do – that’s the point of a preview. I’ve written articles about so many games that I personally couldn’t care less about, but I still do so and I do it objectively because maybe my readers might be interested in the game? Personal opinions are best left for specific opinion pieces such as reviews and features, because when they become the dominant voice in something that is meant to be objective, it comes across as unprofessional. Yes, a twenty-two year old unemployed guy who writes articles on a fansite for free in his spare time just called the work of someone in a paid job unprofessional – I’m not sure if I should be worried, or laughing at the irony.
However, the biggest complaint about Senran Kagura hasn’t been about the gameplay (which is evidenced by the fact that most of the people complaining about the series have never played any of its games!). It’s the fact that its characters (barring Mirai – don’t ignore her!) have rather large busts and their clothes have a habit of being torn to shreds. Which is fair enough – ridiculous fanservice isn’t for everyone. There is one word there that the series’ critics need to pay close attention too though: “ridiculous“. One of the claims that I found repeated over and over again earlier this year was that the characters being extremely well endowed is somehow giving people false expectations of what their breasts should look like. Let’s be honest, if you’re looking for women with breasts that big, you’re either a chiropractor running really low on business or should probably be watching Dog the Bounty Hunter. To that claim though, I would like to present a piece of evidence to the court:
Mirai is the youngest and newest member of Hebijo’s elite class. Being a first year student while other members are second and third years, she is comparatively mature both mentally and physically to the point that she has a complex about it – it’s one of the first things she comments on when meeting her fellow students. During the events of the story, she does become painfully aware of this difference and even runs away from training when Yomi laughs at her for having bear printed underwear. Despite being the “bad shinobi” and villains of the narrative though, the Hebijo girls aren’t actually all that bad. Her team-mates track her down and in a bold show of solidarity, show off the childish and embarrassing things about them – such as Homura wearing frilly, pink pyjamas or Yomi wearing a stomach band. The most poignant part of that scene though, has to be this quote from Homura:
“Your appearance is a childish concern. It has no bearing on your strength as a shinobi”
So basically, Homura was telling Mirai that her physical appearance has nothing to do with who she is or her potential, which is the complete opposite of what people are accusing the game of doing. It sure is a shame that they didn’t actually play the game isn’t it?
Of course, that one quote isn’t exactly an excuse for the bouncy boobies and the shredded clothing (again TK Maxx, I’m sorry). People do perhaps need to keep in mind though that nothing about this game is serious. This is a game where completely normal Japanese schools have secret ninja academies where all of the trainees are teenage girls (and let’s not even get into how Mirai can store a freaking gatling gun in that dress of hers). So why should we be offended about the fact that they have big boobs and can be reduced to their underwear when they lose health? (Mental Note for ONM: Unlike what your “preview” claims, you do not see bare bottoms. Even in Bon Appétit, where things are “more tasty but less tasteful”, prop placement and such is so intricate that you never get to see anything you don’t in Burst).
I’ve also seen accusations thrown around that the game sexually exploits its characters. I can’t speak for the narratives of other games I have yet to play, but in Senran Kagura Burst, despite the bouncy boobies taking up a lot of the advertising real estate, they’re not really mentioned in the story at all aside from the occasional one-liner. At no point in the entirety of Senran Kagura Burst‘s story did the characters find themselves in a position where they were being exploited or under any threat outside of the usual “two rival ninja schools fighting each other” business. In fact, if anything, there were far more occasions where the characters found themselves being motivated, receiving praise and acknowledgement for their strengths and being depicted as strong characters who are in control of their own destinies.
It’s also worth pointing out that the intention here clearly isn’t for you to hold your console in one hand while using your other to…*clears throat*. The fanservice in Senran Kagura is used for comedy. Seeing an enemy reduced to their underwear is funny for the same reasons why when you’re a kid, pulling down someone’s trousers and then running off can be seen as fun – because humans are weird creatures who find humour in the embarrassment of others. This source of humour branches outside of us laughing at the characters – we end up laughing at ourselves. I noted in my review that my first reaction to being able to blow up Katsuragi’s skirt using the 3DS microphone was actually to burst out laughing and this isn’t the only time we find ourselves becoming the butt of jokes:
This attitude really presented itself in regards to the marketing that led up to the European release, which had brilliant commercials like:
And to be honest, even if there are people out there who play the series because they genuinely find it erotic, then so what? Personally, I’ve spent months trying to wrap my head around why the aspect of Senran Kagura Burst people protested about is the fact that clothes are torn apart in battle, as opposed to the fact that these school age girls are fully fledged shinobi – a career where killing people for money is part of the job description? Why is Official Nintendo Magazine not ragging on about Devil’s Third, which in a single E3 trailer, shown people being sliced to pieces, clubbed to death, having grenades shoved in them and being shot at with RPGs? Or how the Nintendo-distributed Bayonetta 2 features dialogue that comes across as incredibly sexualised in situations that clearly don’t ask for it?
Why the crotch shot? What is it that nobody said I could touch and why are you saying that in such a tone? Why the “love” in the E3 2014 trailer or the blatant sexual undertones in the dialogue shown during the Treehouse developer sessions? I thought this was being advertised as a more serious action game? Why is no one talking about these things? Is it because it’s distributed by Nintendo unlike Senran Kagura Burst or what?
Hell, how come Nintendo UK’s official website won’t even show the box art of Senran Kagura Burst but happily shows gory screenshots from the 18 rated Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge? How have we as a society found ourselves at the point where we can accept the thought of twelve year olds swearing at each other over voice chat while playing 18-rated violent games as an every day thing, but consider the thought of adults finding the female body attractive to be abhorrent? If any parents or older siblings are reading this, I would like to ask you this: Would you rather come home from work earlier than usual to find a younger member of your family sat in their room looking at a pornographic magazine with a weird grin on their face or find them screaming obscenities as they stab their friend through the stomach with a sword? To quote Kevin Bacon, “It’s a no-brainer!”. At least human lust is a natural thing and ultimately beneficial (it makes babies that furthers the human race) unlike murder.
Am I suggesting that we call for violent video games to be banned too? Well, in regards to my earlier example, twelve year olds shouldn’t be playing them anyway but otherwise, no. I do believe that we need to draw some very fine lines in regards to what is acceptable and what isn’t in the real world, but art should be free to explore whatever themes the artists wishes to. Some of literature’s greatest classics are those that courted controversy for covering themes that would be utterly detestable if they were to happen in real life, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (that depicted the sexual relationship between a 37/38 year old literature professor and his 12 year old step-daughter). Also, what about Tsukasa Fushimi’s light novel series My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute, that depicts two siblings deepening their relationship with each other before dealing with what happens when things get a little too deep? Of course, if such things occurred in real life, there would be uproars about them, but why shouldn’t we be allowed to explore the themes and reactions to events in ways that no one is actually hurt or put in danger (as obviously, they aren’t real)?
Sadly, this situation isn’t just unique to Senran Kagura and has been observed through history for some time now. It happened with the release of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye decades ago and still resurfaces from time to time. Usually it’s the same old thing – someone who hasn’t read the book tries to get it censored or banned from schools because of its use of profanity and apparent promotion of behaviours such as drinking and promiscuity, while completely missing the core points of the novel they would understand if they’d read more than the few extracts their gossipy friend shown them – Holden Caulfield’s struggle with adolescent angst and feelings of alienation that conflict with the transition to adulthood.
In my review of Senran Kagura Burst, I noted my belief that the fanservice in the game serves as a symbol for the game’s wider theme of challenging perceptions. To reiterate, I believe that this is shown most prominently by the over-the-top cloth shredding gameplay which gives you an immediate impression of what the game will be. Sadly, too many people have convinced themselves that this first impression of the game is the absolute. Many of the game’s critics have refused to play the game as a result of this and by doing so, to be blunt, they are the ones objectifying the characters as little more than sexual objects.
The story of Senran Kagura Burst begins with us being introduced to the Hanzō Academy, who are outright labelled as the “Good Shinobi”, while the Hebijo Clandestine Girls Academy is given the label of “Evil Shinobi”. The line is clearly drawn from the outset, but as you explore the narrative, we learn that every character carries the weight of their past with them as their motivation to become shinobi and as we watch the ways in which the characters not only interact amongst their own groups but also with others, we find that line becoming more and more blurred until we’re left wondering whether there is actually any objective definition of “good” and “evil”. That is why when I see uneducated critics of the game taking the likes of the incredibly sweet Hibari, who struggles with her lack of confidence and perceived lack of worth, objectifying her and reducing to nothing more than, as the Official Nintendo Magazine puts it, a “jiggly-boobed cretin” and dismisses the entire game as “filth”, that offends me more than the 3D-animated partial nudity of people who don’t exist. Also, who uses the word “cretin” any more anyway? I think the only person I’ve heard say it is my Grandpa when he’s complaining about people when he’s driving.
I imagine some of you are sat there thinking “Wait, is this massive tl;dr piece really coming from the same guy who launched a study on representation in video games and constantly ribs on Ubisoft’s female Assassin controversy in his tweets?” Well yes, yes it is. Is that incredibly contradictory? Maybe, but I don’t think it is. You see, when it comes to things like fanservice and the representation of people in the media, I always make sure to keep the context in mind when judging it. I am admittedly a fan of works where fanservice does take the centre stage, such as High School DxD and To Love Ru but because those themes are on the front cover, it’s clear to know what you’re getting into if you choose to.
What I don’t agree with though, is when objectionable things are simply left in the background as if it’s a perfectly natural prop, like a newspaper left on a train seat in a movie. I believe that if we truly want something to be treated as something that is normal, then we need to start treating it like it is. That might sound rather stupid, but what I mean is that perhaps the best way to make something the norm is to treat it as such, instead of making a big song and dance if say, a film chooses to have a female lead character as opposed to a male, because that still instils the mindset that such a thing is “unique” or “exotic”. Perhaps what we should do instead, is look at and talk about when something hasn’t been done for reasons that aren’t justified by the core themes of the work itself, such as Ubisoft not giving female players the option to play as a character of their own gender in multiplayer modes of Assassin’s Creed Unity or Marvel Studios having nine feature films released and five confirmed as being in varying degrees of pre-release that all feature white males in the lead roles (Black Widow doesn’t count until she receives her own solo film).
Admittedly, one thing that does irritate me is when I play a game or watch a TV show that actually has a strong premise or good plot and it has what feels like randomly inserted gratuitous fanservice (like my earlier comments about Bayonetta 2). There are times and places where things are appropriate and where they are not and if I buy pizza, it’s because I want a pizza, not because I want a burger. To criticise a work of art that has fanservice as its main selling point for having fanservice though, is kind of like opening a copy of Playboy and complaining about the nudity – it’s right there on the label and if you don’t like it, then don’t buy the box – just don’t tell people that they should eat a burger when they want to eat a pizza. However, feel free to complain that you received a burger when you ordered a pizza (I hope my analogy hasn’t gotten too confusing? xD). Art should always be about giving people the freedom to experience whatever fantasies, possibilities or other worlds they want and really, who are we to judge what fictional extremes people should be allowed to indulge themselves in?
So in conclusion, I really wish people would stop being so critical of Senran Kagura Burst. It isn’t a game that’s meant to be taken seriously at all and is merely meant to be a bit of fun for the kind of people who like that thing. Obviously, there is a serious issue with the way women are represented and treated within the industry as a whole (not just in games), but Senran Kagura like Takaki, is so open and bold about who it is that it really isn’t the right battlefield for the war. There are other games out there that deserve the attention a lot more.
I like Senran Kagura because it’s a series of games that I find enjoyable and for as long as we keep on receiving new games that offer new experiences, I will continue to do so. I am a full supporter of equal rights and representation, but I also believe in the freedom of art as well. If that makes me a bad man, then so be it, but I am who I am and I’m a player of Senran Kagura!